OSCAR-winning director Alexander Payne has an enviable track record for drawing career-crowning performances from actors he casts in starring roles. It's debatable whether Jack Nicholson has ever been better as a mordant retiree in Payne's memorable About Schmidt, while something similar can be said about Paul Giametti's portrayal of a tetchy wine connoisseur in the same director's often hilarious Sideways.
Payne's latest feature, The Descendants, is set up to provide George Clooney with a similar opportunity to soar. It's true to say he isn't found wanting in the role of Matt King, a successful Hawaii-based lawyer fighting a rearguard action against a mid-life meltdown. King has always considered himself the "understudy" parent to his two daughters, wayward teen Alex (Shailene Woodley) and the slightly kooky Scottie (Amara Miller), but when a power boat accident leaves his beloved wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in a terminal coma, he is obliged to take centre stage in the parenting stakes.
It's a task for which he is thoroughly ill-equipped, and a bad situation is made worse when a shock revelation precipitates an emotional tipping point of sorts. The sense of a man overboard is palpable as, confronted with his inability to properly connect with his kids, King is forced to meditate on the error of his previous ways. A highly entertaining journey of self-discovery and soul-retrieval ensues.
Though the set-up doesn't exactly lend itself to laughs, and a sense of quiet desperation is palpable throughout, the director's previously advertised facility for weaving comic magic out of the slightly tragic is seen to good effect. If not quite up to the standard of About Schmidt or Sideways, the stunning Hawaiian backdrop combined with strong supporting performances and a punchy script ensures The Descendants fulfils all of the criteria required of a quality piece.
SO much for the Biblical adage that warns about the sins of the father being visited on the sons. In Roman Polanski's latest directorial offering, the darkly comic Carnage, it's much more a case of the sins of the sons being visited on the fathers. And mothers, for that matter.
A dust-up in a public playground that resulted in one kid losing two of his teeth has led to the parents of the perpetrator, Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), being invited over to the Brooklyn apartment of the parents of the victim, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster). The intention is to settle their differences amicably, but it's understating the situation to suggest it doesn't work out that way.
What starts out as an exercise in reconciliation soon deteriorates into an exercise in crisis management as the forced politeness of their initial interactions is gradually replaced by bouts of pointed verbal sparring and eventual outright hostility.
So why can't they just get along? The contrast between the two couple's backgrounds explains some of the tensions -- Alan and Nancy are unapologetic Wall Street types while Penelope and Michael are ostensibly card-carrying liberals -- but not all of them. All is eventually revealed as a bottle of Scotch is introduced into the equation and, faster than you can say in vino veritas, lines get crossed, home truths are exposed and relationships are rocked. Throw in a spectacle that includes tulips getting throttled, a homeless hamster and the slightly surreal vision of Kate Winslet projectile vomiting and you've put yourself in the picture.
Though ultimately not as profound as it seems to think it is, this intelligent drama remains a richly rewarding experience. The stellar cast delivers a collective tour-de- (grown-up) farce while the script is studded with quality one-liners and perceptive insight. Carnage is not exactly an uplifting snapshot of the human condition and the characters are less than likeable. They are, however, credible and compelling.
Opens on Friday
Pan's Labyrinth started a Spanish mini trend in the horror-hybrid genre, and the latest offering is Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's (half) Spanish Intruders. It begins in Spain with a little boy telling his mother about Carahueca, a creature who steals children's faces. Every night he is tormented by nightmares, his mother (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) resorting to priests, and then flight.
This story is told intercut with that of London engineer John Farrow (Clive Owen) and his daughter Mia (Ella Purnell). There's a wife/mother (Carice Van Houten) but she is barely more than a cardboard cut-out except when having unlikely sex with the door open and a still-awake 12-year-old down the hall. Mia finds the unfinished story of Hollowface (Carahueca) in a tree and he then haunts her dreams. There's a twist and then another, a dash of red herring, a good dollop of psychology, a pinch of allegory.
Any trend can only keep going strong when new members add something new to keep it fresh. What was enough at the beginning of a genre does not remain enough, so where Paranormal Activity did fine with a good idea and not a whole lot of action, Intruders does not. It suffers too because it's a good idea, badly written. The plotting is loose, the pacing poor, the mix of genres doesn't quite work and, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure I understood it.
You can see what Intruders was aiming for but it lands wide of the mark. However it is atmospheric and the cast is good. The father-daughter relationship is nice and Owen a convincing scared, loving father. Though his character might have copped a few things a bit sooner.
Low on horror, and with absolutely no gore, it is hard to see where it will most appeal. It's not unwatchable but could have been much better.
Brace yourselves for the most puppyish and youthfully intense love story since a Montague boy met a Capulet lass in fair Verona. Like Crazy subscribes to that post-Twilight stage in the young person's discovery of romantic love, not so much tweaking heartstrings as heavily strumming them.
Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are Jacob and Anna, who lock eyes one day across a lecture room in their Los Angeles campus. Young and doe-eyed, they gravitate towards each other magnetically, and embark on the kind of heavy young love affair that sees couples gaze back at one another and smile hypnotically for lengthy moments.
So caught up are they in each other that Anna breaches visa regulations by extending her stay in the US instead of returning home to England. This is noted by US Immigration, which subsequently refuses her re-entry after she pops home for a wedding.
Jacob has established a fledgling business in LA so he can't relocate to the UK willy-nilly. Anna, meanwhile, tries every angle to have her visa renewed. The strains put on their relationship by the Atlantic Ocean begin to show, testing their love in various and predictable ways.
Director Drake Doremus blends indie technique -- hand-held cameras, ambient piano chimes, unscripted scenes -- with gooey cliches such as affectionate strolls on the beach or studying each other through a pane of glass. Yes, Like Crazy takes itself very seriously indeed, which wouldn't be so bad if Jones and Yelchin had a more convincing chemistry and Jacob and Anna were given more substantial things to do and say. As things stand, there isn't enough to bolster a worthwhile hour and a half of screen time.
House of Tolerance
Writer-director Bertrand Bonello is clearly interested in the people behind the sex business, this is his third film on the topic. In House of Tolerance (L'Apollonide) he goes back in time, to the turn of 19th-Century Paris and to a high-end legal brothel, so respectable it receives written job applications.
The beautiful girls (played by Alice Barnole, Hafsia Herzi, Celine Sallette, Jasmine Trinca, Adele Haenel, Iliana Zabeth) and their madam Noemie Lvovsky live and work in a sumptuous home. They have gorgeous clothes, lots of Champagne and a pet panther. And they have regular rich clients.
But early on the dangers are exposed when one of the prostitutes is mutilated by a customer and relegated to housekeeper or occasional fetish party act. It becomes clear, too, that the women run up debts with their madam and cannot leave until these are paid off.
They are essentially slaves whose only hope of leaving is to be bought by some rich man or another brothel. If venereal disease or addiction doesn't get them first.
There are, inevitably in a French film about a brothel, lots of naked women. Although occasionally sensuous it is not erotic, it doesn't try to be, portraying the details behind the work.
A story unfolds, but it is largely episodic. At 122 minutes it's a little too long, but it's lovely to look at with a lot of layers, without being complex.
Now showing at the IFI
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